A touch of Greatness



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Tennessee State University: A Synopsis of “A Touch of Greatness,” 1912-2012

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Bobby L. Lovett, Ph.D.


Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869), wrote "The subject of history is the life of peoples and of humanity." He explained oppression and freedom this way: "I sit on a man's back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back."1

Tennessee State University (TSU) is a microcosm of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) negotiating the treacherous journey from 1912 to 2012. "A Touch of Greatness" the story of Tennessee State University also is similar to the history of typical American colleges and universities. The TSU story is about the freedom of an institution of higher education; about the complex economic, political, psychological and social forces that affected the institution as they would affect any institution in a dynamic, multi-racial society. Yet, Tennessee State University has a unique combination of characteristics and a history that differentiates the university from others and shapes its current instructional, research, and service programs. From its conception in 1909 as a Jim Crow institution for Negroes, Tennessee State evolved to serve metropolitan Nashville, Middle Tennessee, the State of Tennessee, the nation, and the global community by the 21st century, and by 2012 maintains a student body, faculty, and staff that is culturally and geographically diverse. Since it opened with 250 students in June 1912 as a public normal school to Negro train teachers, Tennessee State has experienced several major transformations into a four-year college in 1922, a liberal arts based accredited teacher education college by 1936, graduate programs by 1942, university status in 1951, and maturity into a comprehensive university that the Carnegie Corporation ranked as an Extensive Level I Doctoral Institution. The 100-year TSU story includes some teachable but excruciating chapters.

Tennessee (1796- ) was slow in providing public education to its citizens. The common school provision was part of the revision of the Tennessee constitution in 1835. But no funds were appropriated by the General Assembly.

Access to public education for black Tennesseans was an even more difficult journey, in particular leading to the opening of a public college for Negroes. In February-March 1865, the Republican Party-controlled General Assembly and the voters changed the state constitution to reflect the end of slavery in Tennessee. On December 18, 1865, the required number of states ratified the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery throughout the United States. The May 1-3, 1866 race riot by the whites left two whites and 46 Negroes dead in Memphis, causing a congressional investigating committee to descend on Memphis. The General Assembly granted some rights of citizenship to black Tennesseans, but made it clear that Jim Crow (racial segregation and white supremacy) would be law in Tennessee. Whereas sexual relations between black men and white women and black women and white men was common during slavery times, post-bellum state law said, “Inter-marriage between white persons with Negroes, mulattoes, or persons of mixed blood, descended from a Negro to the third generation inclusive of their living together as man and wife in the State is prohibited.”2

Despite the Memphis race riot, Tennessee fixed its race relations enough so that Congress readmitted Tennessee into the Union in July 1866. Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act (1866) granted equal protection of the laws, due process of law, and citizenship to blacks. In February 1867, the Republican controlled Tennessee General Assembly granted Negroes the right to vote. On February 28, Congress awarded Morrill Land Grant (1862) funds to the restored state of Tennessee. But Tennessee had no state college. The General Assembly restored the state office of superintendent of public instruction in 1867. On March 5, a Tennessee public education bill decreed education for all children, but on a racially segregated basis. On June 17, the Nashville city council voted to reopen the public schools next September on a racially segregated basis. Negroes compromised 26 percent of Nashvillians. Northern white missionaries urged Negro parents to register their children for the public schools, but issued a warning in the Nashville Republican Banner (June 30, 31, 1867) that they would watch the situation to see that Negroes received an equal quality education. New York missionaries of the American Missionary Association then converted their Fisk Free School into Fisk University. Northern Baptist and Methodist missionaries converted their freedmen’s schools colleges into Nashville Theological and Normal Institute (Roger Williams University) and Central Tennessee College (Walden University). In December, leaders of the Nashville Colored Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church organized Tennessee Manual Labor University. The northern Presbyterians sold their freedmen’s school to Nashville and moved east to open Knoxville College (1875- ). Knoxville blacks comprised 30 percent of the city population. A freedmen’s college LeMoyne Institute (LeMoyne-Owen College, 1871- ) opened in Memphis where blacks comprised about half of the city.3

The Radical Republican Congress increased the protection of Negro-American citizens. The federal 14th Amendment (1868) made permanent the Civil Rights Act of 1866: due process, equal protection of laws, and citizenship. The15th Amendment (1870) guaranteed and protected Negro citizens’ right to vote from intimidation and violence by white terrorists and others. The pro-Confederate Democrats and other Tennessee racial Conservatives who took political control of Tennessee by 1870 dared re-institute an outright system of re-enslavement on black Tennesseans, but they imposed more Jim Crow (racial segregation) laws including the aforementioned anti-miscegenation clause in the 1870 Tennessee state constitution and poll tax provisions aimed at the new black citizens. Meanwhile, whereas Tennessee had no public higher education for whites or blacks, on January 16, 1869, the General Assembly assigned the federal Morrill Land Grant funds to private East Tennessee University (University of Tennessee). Tennessee law provided that no citizens of this state otherwise qualified shall be excluded from the privileges of a land grant university.4 Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant (R) approved the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that forbid discrimination in public accommodation. And thus despite Tennessee’s poll tax provision, some fourteen black men gained election to the Tennessee House of Representatives, 1872-1896. They persuaded the state to provide some of the federal Morrill land-grant money to be used for scholarships for Negro students to attend Tennessee’s private HBCUs. Tennessee funded only about thirty Negro college scholarships by 1890.5

Congressional Republicans made one last attempt to force the Jim Crow states to provide equal education to the recently freed slaves and descendants. The Morrill Land Grant Amendment (1890) allowed the states to establish and maintain separate colleges for white and colored students. Tennessee’s Negro scholarships ended, and in 1891 the University of Tennessee gave some of the Morrill land-grant funds to Knoxville College to operate the Industrial College for Colored Students in the name of UT. Knoxville College received $3,526.64 (5.2 percent) of the $67,640 in federal land-grant funds. The General Assembly provided state funds for secondary schools in 1891 but again did not attempt to equalize black and white Jim Crow education. The federal government did not investigate this discrimination. Instead, in 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 sanctioned “separate but equal” racial practices and principles. In 1899, the General Assembly permitted the counties to levy a high school tax but required no dispensation of school funds on an equal racial basis.6

While Jim Crow officials in Tennessee busied themselves with resurrecting the Old South through a carefully constructed post-Civil War racial segregation system, the rest of America experienced a movement to expand higher education. Since 1880, the nation's number of high schools had increased from 800 to 5,500 and the number of high school graduates tripled. Tennessee officials and governors, many of them former Confederate Army officers, continued to follow the anti-intellectual traditions of the former slavocracy.7

The saviors for southern Negroes including ones in Tennessee were their own Negro leaders in education and northern missionaries, benevolent societies and wealthy philanthropists who invested millions of dollars in freedmen’s education. By 1900, there were 28,560 Negro teachers and 1.5 million Negro children in schools. Since 1828, some 2,000 Negroes had graduated from 4-year colleges. By 1900, 700 Negroes were attending 4-year colleges. Tennessee’s private HBCUs enrolled a few dozens of college students.8

Northern philanthropists held joint education reform conferences with southern leaders, delicately trying to find ways to jump-start the region into the 20th century in elementary, secondary and higher education. Unless the southern region was brought into America’s education reform movement the U.S. could not harness all of its human capital to compete in a new industrial world. Wealthy northern philanthropic agencies such as the General Education Fund, George Peabody Fund, Julius Rosenwald Fund, Anna T. Jeanes Fund, John Slater Fund, and the Southern Education Board began to use their huge industrial profits and wealth to finance the reform of southern education. They pushed southern officials to increase Negro access to public schools. Tennessee education agent S. L. Smith wrote “There is not a single four-year high school for Negroes in Tennessee—either in the city or county system—and a very limited number of two-year high schools in the cities—none approved or accredited by any rating agency.”9

All the above history built the case for Negroes to demand equal access to public higher education. Tennessee State would play a major role in the erection of Negro schools in the state.

In 1907, education reformers introduced a normal school (teacher training institution) bill in the General Assembly. The bill failed. But Tennessee assumed responsibility for the private University of Tennessee for whites only.10 When the normal school bill was re-introduced in 1909, Negro leaders petitioned the General Assembly to include a public Negro state college in the bill. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction R. L. Jones called for the legislation to include a Negro school. Jones assured Governor Malcolm R. Patterson (D)—a native of Alabama and son of a Confederate veteran that the Negro school would not be like the existing private Negro colleges that prepared Negro students “to be no more than discontented propagators.”11 Jones perhaps was referring to Fisk graduate (1888’) William Edward B. Du Bois who published The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that called for equal rights for Negro Americans.12

The words “Agricultural and Industrial” were inserted in the black institution’s name. The Negro school seemed to be designed to remain within the confines of Jim Crow rules and would not be a threat to the maintenance of white supremacy in Tennessee. The April 27, 1909, bill thus authorized the “Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes” along with three state normal schools for whites in the grand divisions of east, middle, and west Tennessee.13 The localities bid on locating the four normal schools in their towns. Memphis, Murfreesboro, and Johnson City gained the normal schools for whites: West Tennessee State Normal School (University of Memphis); Middle Tennessee State Normal School (Middle Tennessee State University); East Tennessee State Normal School (East Tennessee State University).

William Jasper Hale a Chattanooga school principal headed a drive to raise $71,000 in pledges to attract the Negro school to Chattanooga-Hamilton County that had no HBCUs [until 1948]. Seventy percent of black Tennesseans lived in west Tennessee. But oppressive politics and black poverty rates obstructed efforts to locate the school in Memphis-Shelby County. Memphis had HBCUs Howe Institute and LeMoyne Institute (1871- ), but neither institution offered college degrees at the time. The Negro Methodists had Lane College (1881- ) in Jackson-Madison County not far from Memphis. Knoxville blacks seemed satisfied with Knoxville College. Nashville had college degree granting HBCUs: Walden University (1868-1928), Roger Williams University (1864-1929), Fisk University (1866- ), and Meharry Medical College (1876- ).14

Negro leaders Henry Allen Boyd, James C. Napier, Richard H. Boyd, Benjamin Carr, Preston Taylor, and others nevertheless formed the Colored Normal School Association to lobby the legislature for locating the public Negro normal school in Nashville. These men were leaders of the Davidson County Negro Republican Club, the National Negro Business League Nashville chapter, and disciples of Booker T. Washington’s conservative racial philosophy and emphasis on industrial (mechanical arts) manual labor education for the black masses. In 1909 they sponsored a statewide railroad speaking tour from Bristol to Memphis for Mr. Washington. And when Nashville's white leaders operated a booster campaign and a Nashville Board of Trade to improve the city, attract new businesses, and be a part of America's Progressive Reform Movement, in 1890-1915, these black leaders became a part of that movement by organizing a Negro Board of Trade. Afro-Nashville the state's second largest Negro community had two Negro banks, a line of black businesses on Cedar and Jefferson streets, four HBCUs, and a prosperous black elite-class. Nashville was poised to win the bid for Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School for Negroes.

In 1910, the Nashville Globe newspaper with a weekly circulation of about 20,000 subscribers and readers and the Colored Normal School Association called for community meetings in the Odd Fellows Hall on Thursday nights. Negro citizens agreed to raise money as a match to any bonds issued by Davidson County. Negro citizens held meetings in Preston Taylor’s offices on 4th Avenue North. On March 18, they decided on a house-to-house canvassing campaign to raise more money. Negroes pledged more than $40,000 to the effort. Davidson County voted a bond issue to help gain the school. But most white voters did not approve.15

By January 13, 1911, the State Board of Education (SBOE) decided to place the Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School for Negroes in Nashville-Davidson County. In March 1911, the SBOE selected William Jasper Hale to head the school. He began directing the construction of four buildings on a hill on Centennial Boulevard near the end of Jefferson Street and 28th Avenue North.16 Hale had about $96,000 for construction, supplies, equipment, and teaching personnel. On July 6, the General Assembly approved Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School for Negroes to receive funds based upon “the scholastic population of Negro children and the scholastic population of white children, giving each race . . . just and equitable proportion of the fund received annually by the State of Tennessee.”17 But the University of Tennessee for whites received $68,960 in federal Morrill funds and gave Knoxville College $10,350 (15 percent) to service Tennessee's 21.7 percent Negro population.18

In a letter (December 18, 1911) to President William H. Taft (R), black Nashvillian James C. Napier the U.S. Register of the Treasury protested that Tennessee officials had denied black citizens any benefits from the Hatch Act (1887) federal funds. On January 12, 1912, Napier testified to the Agriculture and Forest Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that Negro youth had no access to the agricultural experiment stations in Tennessee: “I personally found no Negro at Knoxville College that considered themselves a part of the University of Tennessee . . . We [Negroes] never have gotten a full portion of it [the Morrill funds].”19 When the federal government granted federal funds under the Smith-Lever Act for extension activities, University of Tennessee got $639,496.31 and gave Tennessee A. & I. State Normal $2,000 (0.3 percent).20

In late May 1912, Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School for Negroes was about ready to open its doors to students. The campus was rural, isolated, and rough. Rocks and debris from recent construction dominated the campus that had three buildings: the girls’ dormitory (West Hall), boys’ dormitory (East Hall), and a main building (“Old Main”). The three-story brick and stone women’s dormitory included 33 large bedrooms with closets. The men’s dorm was similar. The main building was a modern brick and stone structure, three stories in height with offices, laboratories, recitation rooms, library, reading room, auditorium, dining hall, kitchen and laundry—in all, forty rooms. The auditorium had a gallery and space for 700-800 persons. Most classrooms were furnished with modern desks and recitation seats. There was not enough chairs and furniture for the classrooms. The laboratories waited to be fully equipped with all needed apparatus and supplies. The President's Home (“Goodwill Manor”) soon was completed. The 165- acre property was valued at $200,000.21 Hale recalled, “We had to solicit outside funds.”22 On June 19-21, 1912, State Normal School for Negroes opened for a 2-week summer session. There were 13 instructors and 230 students (mostly schoolteachers from across the state). The students arrived by trains, a few cars and even some two-horse wagons. Hale arranged for cars, horse-drawn wagons and trucks to go to the turn-a-round next to Fisk University at 18th Avenue North and Jefferson Streets and to train stations and transport new arrivals to State Normal. Hale charged a fee of 15 or 20 cents. Late arrivals increased summer enrollment to 248, filling the dormitories to capacity. Local residents boarded some students for a fee. No one was turned away. The $6 on-campus boarding fee seemed to be insufficient to cover costs. Each room had shades, iron beds, springs, mattresses, dresser, washstand, center table, straight chair, and a rocker. The excitement of having their own state school kept the crowd excited. State Normal with its buildings sitting on a rocky hill above the Cumberland River was a great contrast to one-room Negro school houses frequently made of rough wood or located in local churches.23

On Friday, July 4, a traditional Negro holiday, Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School held an elaborate closing program. Each county and state representative among the students gave three minutes of presentation on "how we appreciate State Normal." Professor William H. Singleton spoke on Hale’s difficulties in opening summer school. Other faculty consisted of Ben Carr, H. R. Merry, Howard H. Robinson, J. B. Hatte, Estizer Watson, Martha Brown, Ms. M. C. Hawes, Edwina Smith, Lillian Dean Allen, Laura Carey, Mrs. B. R. Parmenter, and Hattie Ewing Hodgkins. The students thanked Miss Brown and staff for such delicious and nutritious meals.24

Next door, the city had bought the remaining 37 acres and converted them into Hadley City Park for Negroes. The dedication of the park took place on July 4, 1912. Hale, the students and teachers attended the ceremony. The Fisk Jubilee Singers and a band from Murfreesboro provided the music. Standing on the porch of the old plantation house was Nashville Mayor Hilary House, three park commissioners, other white officials, Benjamin Carr, black city councilman Solomon Parker Harris and other Negro leaders. Carr officiated the ceremonies and gave each person time to make remarks. The A. & I. group then headed to another outing.25

On September 16, 1912, the first fall quarter of the Negro State Normal opened with some 250 students from every part of the state. The new school was a regular beehive by Monday afternoon. A few of the students started their program in the grammar school department. Some 369 students arrived on campus. There was no tuition for Tennessee residents. The fees were $2 each 12-week term; $1 for summer term; meals, room, heat, light and bath cost nine dollars for 4 weeks; medical fee, $1.50 a year, uniform for girls, $13, uniform hat for girls, $2; every student had to give one hour’s work each day. Boys need a shirt and tie. A laundry was available.26

President Hale opened the session with great fanfare and formality, inviting the mayor and state dignitaries to the opening convocation. State Superintendent of Instruction J. W. Brister reminded the students that the emphasis would focus upon training the head, heart, and hand for a life of usefulness and hard work. President Hale later wrote to Brister, “Our watchword is ‘Think, Work, and Serve’.”27 Preston Taylor admitted the school free including transportation on his “pleasure wagons” to the Colored State Fair held at Greenwood Park. Friday was Clean up Day, with community persons invited to come out to the campus with tools in hand and bring mules, shovels, hoes and picks to build gravel walks, pull weeds and trim trees. After the students had spent the day building a coal bin and road beds, there was a recreational outing. Faculty and students held a social in the auditorium on Saturday. Classes began on Monday.28

Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School initially had three departments: Academic, Agriculture, and Mechanical. The curriculum was broad and innovative enough to accommodate the needs of a heterogeneous student body and fit the needs of a people, their children and grandchildren only 47 years removed from slavery. Religion became a vital part of the program. Students were forced to leave the dormitories to make sure they went to chapel. W. S. Ellington served as the first dean of chapel. Half of the Tennessee A. & I. State Normal School founders were ministers of the Gospel. The curriculum included a wide variety of courses to satisfy elementary grades, high school, and two-year college studies. The English curriculum included manual training and remedial work, grammar, composition, inflection, syntax and prosody, and sentence analysis courses; composition and rhetoric, English literature, American literature, teacher’s grammar, public school literature and children’s literature. Education courses included psychology, pedagogy, methods for teacher’s grades 1-8, school management, practice teaching, and child study (psychology). History included American, Tennessee, English, industrial, ancient, medieval and modern history; civil government and history review. The mathematics curriculum included arithmetic, algebra in factoring, fractions, simple equations, high school algebra graphics, theory of exponents, radicals, quadratic equations, inequalities and binomial theorem, and geometry to develop reasoning skills. Teaching method was taught in the fourth year.29

The music curriculum was limited to note-reading, chorus, piano and harmony lessons. Students had to pay a $2 per month music fee for the lessons. The domestic art courses (for grades 4, 5, and 6) included dress-making, stitching, sewing, and tailoring. To accommodate the locals, part-time courses were offered two hours a day, two days a week, over nine months, and the students received a certificate upon completion of the courses. The home economics courses included dietary standards, cooking, sewing supervision, nutrition, food production, canning and preserving food, and practice teaching. The Academic Department accepted grade school students and prepared them for the academic and normal courses. They could take electives in teaching, agriculture, home economics, trades, and business. The Mechanical Department consisted of carpentry, blacksmithing, wheelwright (building carts, farm wagons and carriages), painting, bricklaying, plastering, plumbing, shoemaking, cabinetmaking and mechanical drawing to prepare foremen, workers and teachers of the trades. The Boys Trades Building (1914) included spacious shops, an office, washroom, and a near vacant top floor for the Industrial Department.30

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